Friday, January 21, 2022

The Benevolence of New Ideas Review and Giveaway


The Benevolence of New Ideas

One Woman's Journey From Sicily to America Book 3

by Carmela Cattuti

Genre: Historical Women's Fiction 

The satisfying conclusion to Angela Lanza’s story which began in Between the Cracks when she loses her entire family in the earthquake on Sicily following the 1908 eruption of Mt. Etna and continues in The Ascent as she adjusts to life in the United States as a new bride and Italian American immigrant. Now, the final installment in the trilogy, The Benevolence of New Ideas, thrusts Angela and her family into the heart of the Vietnam War and the turbulent times of the 1970s.

As the family matriarch, Angela guides her niece, Marie, through these challenges and the era’s limiting structures of education and organized religion, helping Marie to embrace new ideas and expand her intuition and relationship with the unseen world. Angela’s compassion and wisdom has an exceptional impact on Marie’s life and those around her. A fulfilling ending that celebrates Angela’s wisdom in all things along with her well-lived life from tragedy to triumph and from heartbreak to the enduring love of family.

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The Transition 

           Angela sat by her husband’s hospital bed and waited for the end to come. She wondered how she should move forward in her life after Franco took his last breath. He had married and brought her from Sicily in 1913 and now, years later he lay dying from a stroke. In life he constantly expressed his opinion regardless of popular sentiment and now his voice was gone, and his shallow breathing was the last functioning system. He had had several strokes over the years, now this was the one that would take his life. Angela had sat with many of her family members and friends during the past decades as they transitioned into the next world: her mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and older Italian immigrants who left their homeland and never saw the land of their birth again. 

      Franco’s chest rose slowly and fell abruptly as if his lungs were attempting to perform their function but the soul who had inhabited the body had already vacated and was waiting for his lungs to stop so he could complete the process and move on. When Franco executed his final breath, Angela anxiously awaited his next inhale, but his chest was still. He had gone.

      Angela had cared for him during his long illness and now she was free. The relief she felt made her cringe. How could she so easily feel relief when Franco had suffered? She grieved but was thankful there would be no more concerns about leaving him home alone or trips to the doctor, or Franco insisting he could perform a task when he couldn’t. He had immigrated from Sicily at age twelve in the early 20th century full of energy and promise. Now, in 1968 Angela looked back and felt he had been successful in fulfilling that promise. Franco had brought Angela, at age eighteen from the convent orphanage in Palermo where she had lived since the 1908 earthquake to a new life in Nelsonville, New York, about forty-five minutes north of Manhattan. It was not the life she thought she would have in America, but what she had created in America she never would have had the opportunity to experience had she stayed in Sicily. 

      Angela kissed Franco several times on both cheeks and on the lips. The doctors had said it was a matter of time until he would pass away. She could see death hovering and begin to slowly drape his body from his head to his feet as if giving Angela time to say good-bye. 

      “Adio mio caro,” whispered Angela. “Grazie di tutto.” Tears rolled down her face onto Franco’s cheek and mouth. His eyes were open and fixed, as if peering into the world beyond. She put her hands on the sides of his face and with her thumbs closed his eyes. A nurse stepped into the room.

“He’s gone,” said Angela.  

      Angela gathered her pocketbook and scarf, went to the door, and stepped over the threshold. The nurse had covered Franco’s body with a sheet as if to close a chapter on a life. The 1960s were ending and so was Angela’s former life and attitudes. 

The Ascent

One Woman's Journey From Sicily to America Book 2

The sequel to Carmela Cattuti's first novel, Between the Cracks,, this story invites the reader to accompany Angela Lanza as she builds her life in America during the first half of the 20th century. A Sicilian immigrant, she manages to assimilate into the social life of a small town outside of New York City. Through the horrors of war, domestic tragedy, and raising her sister-in-law's children, hers is a successful immigrant experience. Angela seeks to transcend organized religion and develop her spirituality. She influenced three generations of Americans through her artistic sensibility and a sharpened intuition. The book parallels America's growth with Angela's growing sense of who she is in the world.

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Alice came to a fork in the road. 
‘Which road do I take?’ she asked.
‘Where do you want to go?’ responded the Cheshire Cat.
‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered.
‘Then,’ said the Cat, ‘it doesn’t matter.’
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland


Nelsonville, NY-1930

Angela stood in the kitchen of her fifteen room Queen Anne Victorian home on Morning Glory Avenue. It had been twenty-two years since she had experienced the 1908 earthquake in Messina, Sicily. Her sister, aunt, and grandmother had perished in the disaster. At the time of the earthquake Angela had been an orphan; both parents had died in their early twenties. Angela and her brother, Antonio, were sent to live with their grandmother, while her younger sister, Maria, was sent to live with an aunt. The earthquake had finished her family and now she was standing in a big house without a family to fill it.  A few years after she had emigrated from Sicily, Angela had fallen ill with a high fever. Her uterus had ruptured, and the doctors had to remove it, ending her dream of having children. 

Angela moved to the dining room and surveyed the dining room table as if it were an artist’s canvas. The white linen tablecloth made the room feel fresh and hopeful. An empty crystal bowl with white candlesticks on either side stood in the center of the table like place holders, waiting for the next gathering to occur. She walked to the buffet and gazed at a photograph of her sister-in-law, Speranza; a tall thin young woman with sunken cheeks peered out from underneath a 1920s style hat and dress. A holy card of the Blessed Mother leaned on the side of the framed photograph. Angela had placed it there so that Speranza was protected by Mary. She had made the ensemble for Speranza’s engagement party ten years ago. When Angela came to America in 1913, Speranza was nine years old and in need of guidance. Angela had lost her sister, so she set her intentions on caring for Speranza, in turn, Speranza helped her learn English.

A few months ago, Speranza suddenly died from a heart ailment. It was a blow that would stay with Angela until she passed from this life. Angela removed the card and leaned it on a nearby crystal bowl and picked up the photograph. Next to Speranza was her husband Salvatore. He had a vacant stare that communicated to the viewer that he was either occupied elsewhere, or he hid who he was. Angela still had Speranza’s three children to care for, but they were not her blood. Angela returned the photograph and holy card back to its original place. Franco’s chair was to the left of the buffet. Angela had made the chair cover with a rose motif material. Franco’s body had made an impression on the worn cushions a ghost of his form that Angela sometimes mistook for Franco. Pipes encrusted with tobacco dangling from a pipe holder like small sculptures sat on a table next to the chair. The room reeked of stale tobacco.

Angela turned and admired the black marble fireplace and two sets of sliding oak French doors. One set lead to her sitting room and the other opened to a spacious hallway with a winding staircase. She gazed at the tapestry of Vatican City that hung over the fireplace; St. Peter’s Basilica stood in the center like a fortress. Franco had purchased it on their 1929 trip to Sicily. They had returned to Messina hoping to find out what had happened to Angela’s sister Maria. Unfortunately, there was no documentation about her death or survival, so Angela returned to New York without any closure about her sister’s fate. Every time she looked at the tapestry, she was reminded about the nebulous part of her life, and the lingering sense that her sister existed in a space between life and death. This is God’s version of purgatory for me, thought Angela. She was not allowed the heaven she thought would befall her once she came to America.

Angela opened the French door to her sitting room. A couch with billowing cushions sat in front of another marble fireplace. Sewing baskets, dress patterns, and cloth remnants were neatly stacked on a worktable. The house had been built for a physician in 1888. There was a large oak cabinet at the end of the room where he had kept medical supplies. Angela now stored material, thread, and knitting needles. She liked that it had been a healing space that served the community. Maintaining good health was a priority in Angela’s life. She made sure her food was fresh and walked every day regardless of the weather. Angela especially liked the walk to St. Mary’s school which sat on top of a hill over-looking the Hudson River. 

Next to the sitting room was Franco and Angela’s bedroom. It too had French doors that opened into a light filled room. Over the top of the bed was a half-moon shaped stained glass window and when the light spread its rays through the window Angela felt it was a kiss from the sun. Green, red, and blue rays engulfed the room, giving it a feeling of connection with heaven itself. A third dark marble fireplace, with decorative interlacing gold spirals, stood next to the vanity like an anchor for the light. A multi-tiered wrought iron candle stand stood in front of the dark fireplace. When Angela survived her illness many years ago, Franco had prayed to the Blessed Mother to heal his young wife. This was on a Friday, the next day her fever broke, and she was sitting up in bed when Franco came to visit. Every Friday, Angela lit candles to Mary in appreciation for the miracle.

Angela moved into the spacious hallway. Two large stained-glass windows lined the winding staircase. Bright light penetrated the multi-colored stained glass, casting a rainbow of color on the steps and floor. Under the front window sat her sewing machine. A full-length mirror hung on the wall to the right; a small platform waited in anticipation of the next customer. 

Across from the staircase the largest fireplace of them all greeted anyone descending the stairs. It was the same color and design as her bedroom fireplace, but the spirals were intertwined with circles creating a rhythm that reminded Angela of music. Antique gold clocks lined the mantle with figurines depicting eighteenth century dress; ladies with ornate fans shielding their lips and nose, men with white wigs and handkerchiefs dangling from one hand. During the holidays a roaring fire was lit and the aroma of oak and cedar filled the downstairs rooms. 

She stood at the bottom of the staircase with her hand on the railing. The rooms upstairs were vacant. There were not enough people to fill them. They had bought the house with the expectation that Speranza and her family might one day live with them. There was another kitchen and bathroom on the second floor; an apartment that waited for occupants that might come one day. After Speranza’s death, Franco had wanted to rent the rooms for extra income, but Angela opposed it.

“Someone will come if we leave the rooms empty,” Angela told Franco.

        “No one will come,” Franco said. “We need to ask our friends if they know of a family who needs a place to stay. The extra money will come in handy.”

“Speranza’s children will want to stay with us,” Angela said. “Besides, why have strangers live in our home?”

Since his stroke, Franco did not have patience with children. He favored his nephew, Nunzio, Speranza’s first child. Nunzio was vociferous and more than disruptive at times. Angela tried to tame him, but Franco delighted in Nunzio’s boisterous behavior. When Nunzio played with toy guns, Franco taught him how to shoot. He was amused by his nephew, but Angela felt Nunzio’s behavior, while amusing at age six would be offensive as a teenager, and dangerous in adulthood. If Nunzio lived with her, he would have to change. The two younger children were sweet and needed a mother. Their father was often out-of-work and Angela felt he relinquished his obligation as a parent to his sister Paolina. His sister had catered to Salvatore his entire life. He relied on her to cook his meals, wash his clothes, and clean his house.  Salvatore rarely interacted with his children and relied on others to care for them.

Between the Cracks

One Woman's Journey From Sicily to America Book 1

Join Angela Lanza as she experiences the tumultuous world of early 20th century Sicily and New York. Orphaned by the earthquake and powerful eruption of Mt. Etna in 1908, Angela is raised in the strict confines of an Italian convent. Through various twists of fate, she is married to a young Italian man whom she barely knows, then together with her spouse, immigrates to the U.S. This novel is an invitation to accompany the young Angela as she confronts the ephemeral nature of life on this planet and navigates the wide cultural gaps between pre-World War II Italy and the booming prosperity of dynamic young America.

Author, artist, and teacher Carmela Cattuti created Between the Cracks as an homage to her great-aunt, who survived the earthquake and eruption of Mt. Etna and bravely left Sicily to start a new life in America.

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There are many stories about heroic men and there are a few stories about heroic women, but there are few stories focusing on everyday women who are heroic because they keep going despite sometimes unspeakable tragedies. Angela, the protagonist of Carmela Cattuti's trio of stories, is such a heroine.

These stories may be fiction, but they read like biographies. I felt like I was observing the characters, wanting to interact with them. With strong and detailed writing, these stories are a must-read for anyone who enjoys historical fiction, particularly stories set in the twentieth century.

I was interested in reading these books because stories about the influx of immigrants coming to the United States at the turn of the century have always fascinated me. For instance, my father's paternal grandparents came from Lithuania during the early part of the 20th century. 

These books will provide several days of fascinating reading for fans of historical fiction. I enjoyed observing the growth of a realistic and mostly likable character from her youth to her elder years.

The quality of the writing is excellent, but I am knocking two stars off of my rating for the second book because of the extreme levels of size shaming. Thus, I give the first and third books four out of five stars each and the second book three out of five stars. 

These books were superbly crafted, and the author has undeniable talent. But even exemplary literary ability cannot offset disdainful attitudes towards a subset of the population. Yes, sometimes characters have odious opinions and behaviors. I would not want to read only completely sanitized stories because that would be unrealistic. 

Characters can effectively illustrate negative behaviors and attitudes. However, the author seemed to share Angela's opinion that Clara's worst quality is her physique, as evidenced by her continued use of Clara's size to reinforce the idea that Clara was an awful person. Although Clara was clearly an overbearing individual, I saw her as the victim in this dreadful scenario. 

This is an important issue and I include my further thoughts on the matter at the end of the post for anyone who wishes to read them.

Carmela Cattuti started her writing career as a journalist for the Somerville News in Boston, MA. After she finished her graduate work in English Literature from Boston College she began to write creatively and taught a journal writing course at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. As fate would have it, she felt compelled to write this homage to her great-aunt, who survived the earthquake and eruption of Mt. Edna and bravely left Sicily to start a new life in America. Between the Cracks and The Ascent began the story, which now concludes with the final book in the trilogy.

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Size Prejudice: A Big Problem

"The fundamental issue Angela had with Clara was her huge size: a size 20 and she weighed at least 250 pounds in Angela’s estimation."

It only gets worse from there. Angela's mirror is not big enough to reflect Clara's entire body. Perhaps she needs to get a bigger mirror. I'm not sure how big the author thinks a 250-pound person is, but I'm bigger than Clara and I've had no trouble seeing my entire body in a standard mirror.

Clara has trouble climbing the stairs to Angela's home. The implication is that her size is the reason for this difficulty, not that there could be an underlying issue causing both weight gain and difficulty climbing stairs. Angela opines that one day Clara is going to have a heart attack on the stairs and I had a strong feeling that she thought that Clara deserved to suffer because of her size.

There are large people who have no difficulty climbing stairs or even doing strenuous exercise. I have difficulty climbing stairs because of problems with my lower back, the result of always working physically demanding jobs until I became physically unable to work at all. My heart is actually fine, unlike my endocrine system, which is a jacked-up mess. 

The author describes Clara as wearing a dress that resembles a tent. If clothing that resembles a tent is all that is available to fat people, then fat people will wear clothing that resembles a tent. Personally, I wear nondescript clothing that doesn't resemble much of anything except clothing.

I once read an opinion piece stating that making only unattractive clothes available to fat people is a good idea because it will encourage them to lose weight. Shaming and othering is a poor motivator regardless of the desired outcome. Further, most fat people have dieted, likely more than once. I personally attempted to hate myself thin over the course of 33 years. 

Weight reduction diets only work long-term in a small percentage of the population. Dieting essentially places the body in a state of controlled starvation. The results of the Minnesota Starvation Study describe the physiological response to dieting in a healthy adult.

This article about weight regain experienced by former contestants on The Biggest Loser also does a good job of explaining how dieting damages a person's metabolism.

At one point, Clara puts her thick fingers on her huge hips.

Does the author think that all fat people have sausage fingers? I do not deny that we could describe my hips as huge, but even with my titanic size 24 body, I do not have sausage fingers. Sausage fingers may result from edema. Edematous hands point to serious underlying medical issues and are not a call to ridicule the person who has them.

When Clara leaves Angela's house in a huff, she "wobbles from side to side" while going down the stairs.

If a person has a wobbling gait, it indicates an underlying structural issue. People with a wobbling gait often have spinal problems. Sometimes the underlying cause is neurological. Most fat people do not walk with a wobbling gait. 

The horrific levels of size-shaming in this chapter appalled me. It almost made me stop reading. Had the author simply described Clara as a large woman with an overwhelming personality I wouldn't have minded. It was the overt disdain for Clara's body that I found so troubling.

It's almost as if authors think fat people cannot read and therefore no one reading their story will be fat so it's open season to ridicule and demean larger people. Clara is clearly a troublesome client because of her personality. One might think that this would be the fundamental issue rather than her size. Perhaps because I wear a size 24 garment, I am too stupid to understand that a large body, not an annoying personality, is the very worst quality a person could have. 

I know fully that the world hates fat people. I'm simply disappointed to see an otherwise wonderful story marred by the author using big people as scapegoats.

Reading this chapter affected me more profoundly than I initially realized. I believed I had let it go and moved on, but after eating breakfast, I felt tired and discouraged and opted for a nap. Dreams of an angry woman scolding me for my "failure" to become and remain thin plagued me. I remember the inside of my mouth hurting, and when I woke I discovered I had bitten my tongue and the inside of my cheek.

Size prejudice has long-term negative consequences on those who experience it, just as any other prejudice does on its victims. The effects of being on the receiving end of such prejudice include reduced self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and social avoidance. The following article contains further information about the consequences of size prejudice.


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